Entertainment TV How did free-to-air miss out on the golden age of television?
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How did free-to-air miss out on the golden age of television?

While HBO produces Game of Thrones and other epics, Seven is busy with yet another season of MKR. Photo: HBO/Seven
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From twisted comedies to gripping dramas, thrillers, romance and more, there’s no doubt television viewers are in for a great year … subscription and streaming viewers, that is.

While HBO, Netflix, Stan and other pay TV services are rewriting the rules with genre-shattering series and storytelling offered in new ways across multiple platforms, free-to-air networks including Australia’s Big Five seem hell bent on sticking with old plans.

Already this year we’ve seen two of the “big guns” of reality TV launch, Seven’s My Kitchen Rules, and Ten’s I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!.

Both pulled huge audiences, but the former is in its eighth season after being borne out of a similar idea, My Restaurant Rules, while the latter is the localisation of a British idea to find something for B-list stars to do that’s been around since 2002.

Meanwhile, on free-to-air television... Photo: Network Ten
Meanwhile, on free-to-air television… Photo: Network Ten

Still to come this year, Seven will skirt lawsuits with the true-crime drama Blue Murder: Killer Cop, Ten is taking us back to the ultra-controversial Wake In Fright and the ABC is showcasing some of our best talent with dramas such as Claudia Karvan’s Newton’s Law.

There’s no doubt they’ll be good, but that’s a sequel, a remake and a legal drama … possibly the 400th Australia has had since we started churning them out in the 1950s.

In the meantime, Amazon will offer up a thriller where gods are real and battling for Earth (American Gods), Foxtel has Nicole Kidman with a very different look at the complexities of life (Big Little Lies) and Netflix will premiere a romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore as a suburban mum who finds a new lease on life when she becomes – wait for it – a zombie (The Santa Clarita Diet).

It’s fairly likely we haven’t seen too many of those before.

Nicole Kidman (far right) has ditched local TV for US network HBO and its new series Big Little Lies. Photo: HBO
Nicole Kidman (far right) has ditched local TV for US network HBO and its new series Big Little Lies. Photo: HBO

In the gaps left by similarly groundbreaking concepts, propping up the free TV schedules once again will be a heavy reliance on sport and reality TV. And again, it’s looking familiar.

Seven spruiked My Kitchen Rules’ return with promises of an “angry man” and “mighty mums” before Bride & Prejudice showed us how love conquers all. Or not.

Nine will be channelling its inner Gladiators with Australian Ninja Warrior until the next round of The Block is ready to go, and Ten will feed us up another serving of MasterChef then trim us down with Biggest Loser back for another round.

And scattered throughout is the usual motor racing, tennis, cricket and football, football or football, depending on which code you follow.

It’s business as usual for an industry under fire from new competitors.

In other words, it’s business as usual for an industry under fire from new competitors as never before and in increasing danger of falling victim to relevance deprivation syndrome.

But there are some very real reasons things aren’t changing too much for free to air.

They can branch out to second-tier channels and online spin-offs (such as the Home and Away offshoot aired on Presto) to a certain extent, but the networks have to cater to a much wider audience and have greater restrictions on what they can and can’t show.

And when you rely on advertising dollars for profit, you need programming that will make sure people are sitting in front of their set every night and that they can’t fast forward through the ads.

Seven and Presto teamed up to create Home and Away "special events" to be streamed. Photo: Seven
Seven and Presto teamed up to create Home and Away “special events” to be streamed. Photo: Seven

Subscription and streaming services might have dramas that get people tweeting around the water cooler, but almost all their programming can be binge-watched or recorded to view later.

That’s impossible with a footy match or an episode of The Block where the live action means it’s a matter of watch as it happens or don’t watch at all.

All of which means that while 2017 will be a blockbuster year for TV fans, it’ll also be a year when viewers finally realise that while ads are a way of life for some shows, it doesn’t have to be for all.

To find the nuggets in this golden TV age, they just might have to start panning in a few different streams.

Here’s five series off the free-to-air dial to watch out for in 2017:

The Santa Clarita Diet – Netflix

Starring Drew Barrymore in her first major television outing, this rom-zom-com – yes, that’s a ‘romantic zombie comedy’ – follows a young suburban mum who finds a new lease on life when she tries a new diet of human flesh.

Twin Peaks – Stan

Set 25 years after the groundbreaking 1990s mystery thriller, the series will bring new characters and old together to (hopefully) resolve some of the many, many unanswered questions of what happened after the very unnerving and strange finale.

A new take on Twin Peaks is coming to all Australians with a Stan subscription.
A new take on Twin Peaks is coming to all Australians with a Stan subscription.

Britannia – Amazon Prime

In a Britain led by warrior women and magic druids, the locals band together to fight invading Romans. So far so Merlin, but this co-production with Britain’s Sky1 has a huge budget, stellar cast (including The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey) and is firmly aimed at Game Of Thrones fans.

American Gods – Amazon Prime

A supernatural mystery based on cult author Neil Gaiman’s best-selling book, this is a world where the old gods find themselves under threat as the world starts worshipping fame and money instead. Incorporating almost every facet of mythology, a shadow war for control of the world begins.

Big Little Lies – Showcase

Created by David E. Kelly (who gave us LA Law, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal), based on Liane Moriarty’s best-selling book and starring Nicole Kidman, this look at the complex lives of three suburban friends is set to be an international smash.

Scott Ellis has been a television reviewer and analyst for more than 20 years, edited television magazines and liftouts for Australia’s leading newspapers and comments on the television industry for radio and current affairs.

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